Molecular biological findings have indicated that the affinity and the density of presynaptic serotonin transporters may be subject to adaptive regulation, but the physiological conditions that may act to trigger such changes are presently unknown. By means of [3H]paroxetine binding to rat cortical membranes, we studied the influence of two physiological variables that are clearly associated with altered serotonergic activity--circadian rhythm and semistarvation--on K(D)and Bmax values of the serotonin transporter of the rat frontal cortex. No circadian fluctuations of both parameters were observed. Also, semistarvation (50% reduction of normal voluntary food intake) for 2 days had no effect on either K(D) or Bmax values of cortical [3H]paroxetine binding. Food restriction for either 7 days or 2 weeks, however, resulted in a significant, approximately 30%, reduction of the density of cortical serotonin transporters with unchanged transporter affinity. These findings indicate that long-term changes in the density of cortical serotonin transporters can be induced by long-lasting alterations of certain environmental variables. Because the duration and the radius of action of presynaptically released serotonin are governed by the efficiency of the reuptake mechanism, such adaptive changes of serotonin transporter density must be expected to cause long-term alterations of the modulatory impact of the central serotonin system on certain brain functions.